Britain's actresses ask what makes them less equal

Zoë Wanamaker is the latest star to join a Europe-wide protest on pay.

Now is the summer of their discontent. The actress Zoë Wanamaker has become the latest of Britain's elder stateswomen of stage and screen to speak out against the huge gap in equality between male and female actors.

Wanamaker, who helped the BBC pull in high ratings for the sitcom My Family, revealed that she had to fight the corporation for parity in wages with her co-star Robert Lindsay.

Her comments followed revelations that Imelda Staunton has signed a petition calling for more roles for women on television, and were supported yesterday by the actors Sylvia Syms and Greta Scacchi. They also come shortly after the BBC was accused of sexism and ageism after it replaced the choreographer Arlene Phillips as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing with the much younger Alesha Dixon.

Wanamaker said agents or bookers should be "more careful" when negotiating deals for female performers. She added: "Women are always at the bottom as far as pay is concerned – the equal pay business is a big struggle. When Richard Eyre was running the Nottingham Playhouse in the Seventies, he always felt the people who had a mortgage or family should have the top salary, across the board – whether you were male of female.

"That is logical to me, but it does not seem to work like that," she told The Stage newspaper. "Why should women get less? They have the same responsibilities, if not more, especially if they are married and have kids."

A survey conducted at the end of last year across 20 countries by unions representing nearly 80,000 performers found that female actors have fewer work opportunities and get paid less than men, a trend that gets worse as women get older. A recent petition launched by the actors' union Equity, lobbying for equal opportunities for women, states that even though "over half the viewing public is female, in TV drama, for every female character, there are two male characters".

Syms, 75, who recently starred in EastEnders, said attitudes in the entertainment industry had not changed since she started her career in the 1950s. "It's certainly true that men are paid more than women, even men who do not have their names above the title. One hundred years ago, when I was under contract at the studio, I was being paid £30 a week for a leading part, while a man who was playing a much lesser role was on £35."

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